“Anger can destroy marriages, business partnerships and countries,” said Joe Shrand, M.D., an instructor at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the valuable, practical and science-based book Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion with Leigh Devine, MS.
Fortunately, each of us holds the power to defuse our own anger and even others,’ Dr. Shrand said. This is especially critical because often it’s not our own fuse that hinders our success; it’s someone else’s, he said.
The key in cooling anger lies in respect. As Dr. Shrand said, when was the last time you got angry with someone who showed you respect?
“Anger is designed to change the behavior of someone else. Being respected feels great, so why would we want to change that?”
Another key lies in using our prefrontal cortex, instead of letting our primitive limbic system run amok. Our limbic system is the ancient part of the brain known as the “lizard brain,” according to Shrand, also medical director of CASTLE (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered) at the High Point Treatment Center in New Bedford, Mass. It houses our emotions, impulses and memory. And it’s the source of our fight-or-flight response.
The prefrontal cortex is the more advanced, newer part of our brains known as the “executive center.” It helps us plan, solve problems, make decisions and control our impulses. It’s the prefrontal cortex that helps us in deactivating anger in ourselves and others.
Recognizing & Defusing Your Own Rage
Anger is a perfectly normal part of being human, Shrand said. It becomes dangerous when we’re unable to recognize it, or it transforms into aggression. So it’s important to first understand and defuse your own anger.
Angry runs on a spectrum, from irritation to rage. Shrand suggested creating your own anger scale from 1 to 10. For instance, his 10-point scale looks like this: “irritation, aggravation, annoyance, frustration, impatience, displeasure, anger, wrath, fury and rage.” Figure out your triggers for all 10 levels.
Pay attention when your anger surpasses level 5. That’s when our limbic system overwhelms the prefrontal cortex, Shrand writes in Outsmarting Anger. And that’s when we’re more likely to get into verbal or even physical fights.
According to Shrand, there are three major reasons, or domains, why we get angry: resources, such as food and money; residence, which includes not just your home, but your community, work, school and country; and relationships, which include your close family, coworkers, political party and religion.
Specifically, the suspicion that someone wants to take something away from us – resource, residence or relationship – can activate our anger. Another trigger is envy, when someone has something we want in any of the three domains.
To better understand your own anger, Strand suggested considering the various triggers in each of these domains.
Once you recognize the presence of your anger, it’s vital to channel it, he said. “Anger doesn’t have to be destructive but [can be] constructive.” Shrand advised against punching things because you can “go from a pillow to a face.” Instead, “defuse the energy of anger.”
Go for a run, focus on your artwork or finish a DIY project, he said. “Break something that needs to be broken.” As he said, the most amazing works, including music, poetry and art, have been created from anger.
Defusing Other People’s Anger
According to Shrand, you can deactivate another person’s anger by not getting angry yourself. In fact, doing so can connect you to others in profound ways. Take the following example. A stranger was putting up a yard sale sign on Shrand’s lawn. He was pretty annoyed, but, as he approached the man, decided to calmly ask him what he was doing. The man responded defensively.
But Shrand responded with a joke, which eased the tension. This led to a meaningful conversation. Shrand learned that this man – his neighbor – was having a yard sale to finally sell his wife’s belongings, three years after her passing. “His eyes welled with tears as he spoke, this man who just a few moments before had been a burly stranger engaged in a meaningless defensive posture,” he writes in his book.
Shrand’s calm and amicable demeanor sent the message to his neighbor’s brain that Shrand wasn’t a threat. He wasn’t going to steal the man’s resources, residence or relationship.
Another important component of deactivating another’s anger is empathy. For instance, in the above example, Shrand showed his neighbor that he was interested in him and wanted to better understand his thoughts and behavior, which sent another message: “You have value to me.”
And that’s a powerful thing. As Shrand said, “In our heart of hearts, a human being wants to feel valued by another human being.” “Feeling valued leads to trust. In turn, the feeling of trust reduces the other person’s anxiety and potential for anger,” he writes in Outsmarting Anger.
Shrand encouraged readers to “Keep it frontal, don’t go limbic.” In other words, focus on your prefrontal cortex, without getting suspicious of others or lashing out.
You might worry that this leaves you vulnerable to being exploited. But “you’re enhancing your survival potential. You become seen as a benefactor yourself… or a person of integrity and character that others want to be around [and trust].”
Cooperation trumps competition. Group dynamics research has found that while selfish members do better temporarily, altruists win, because they are working cooperatively, he said.
You also never know where people are coming from or the day they’ve had. While we don’t have control over anyone, we do influence everyone, he said. “We have to decide what kind of influence we want to be.”